Baylor University, which draws from a rich Baptist tradition and defines itself with justification as a “Christian university,” at present finds itself wrestling with Baptist dilemmas such as God’s preferring the male voice in the pulpit; faith and freedom to interpret the Bible personally; and professors, students, alumni and other Baylor constituencies pressing the university to recognize LGBTQ student groups. Amidst all this, perhaps it’s time for Baylor leaders to recall the words of Pastor George Washington Truett in “Baptists and Religious Liberty,” 1920: “It is the natural and fundamental and indefeasible right of every human being to worship God or not, according to the dictates of his conscience, and, as long as he does not infringe upon the rights of others, he is to be held accountable alone to God for all religious beliefs and practices. Our contention is not for mere toleration but for absolute liberty. There is a wide difference between toleration and liberty.”
Nationally, much is written these days about politically sponsored Christian gatherings; participants allied against non-Christians; and businesses denying services to individuals who do not meet their specific Christian beliefs. There are those who believe the Bible is the only authority as interpreted by individuals. The King James Bible, it’s relevant to remember, was commissioned by a king, then written and edited by individuals based on translation of ancient languages.
One of many attacks on our very history is the claim our country is a Christian nation — not just that many Americans are Christians but that our country was founded on Judeo-Christian beliefs. Christian revisionists have long attempted to rewrite history and encourage belief that the United States was founded by Christians strictly for Christians. Research shows this is simply not so.
One must remember the Declaration of Independence celebrated today indicated the power of government is derived from the governed — not from any religion or church. This distinction is significant. The Declaration was a radical departure from prevailing Old World ideas that the power of rule over citizens involved kings endowed to reign through the authority of God. The Declaration is a letter to the English king stating the colonies’ intention to separate from such an arrangement. It specifically mentions “Nature’s God” and “Divine Providence,” not Christianity. A reading of the Founders’ writings reveals some had reservations about the Bible and the teachings of Christianity, including one who influenced both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. “I wish (Christianity) were more productive of good works ... I mean real good works … not holy-day keeping, sermon-hearing … or making long prayers filled with flatteries and compliments despised by wise men, and much less capable of pleasing the Deity.” So said wise Benjamin Franklin.
If the United States was founded on the Christian religion, our governing document, the Constitution, would clearly say so. It does not. Except in exclusionary terms, religion is found nowhere in the Constitution. The words “Jesus Christ,” “Christianity,” “Bible” and “God” are never mentioned. The Founders specified that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States” (Article 6, Section 3). Revolutionary in its day, the Constitution gave equal citizenship to believers and non-believers. The Founders ensured no religion could claim to be the official national religion, unlike England.
Responsible for building the foundation of the United States, the Founders were primarily men of The Enlightenment, not men of Christianity. They thought the universe had a creator who did not directly communicate with humans, either by revelation or through sacred books. They were freethinkers who relied on reason, not faith. Many of the Founders did not consider the Bible a “sacred text,” though some did believe it provided good lessons to live by. Famously, Thomas Jefferson distilled and reassembled his own Bible, the so-called “Thomas Jefferson Bible.” It was once distributed regularly to new members of Congress. Some other Founders considered Christianity an impediment to growth and did not attend church or attended church only as a civic duty.
Yes, the Founders did include Christian individuals among their ranks. Congress changed Jefferson’s original wording in the Declaration of Independence regarding equal rights from “All men are created equal and independent. From that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable.” The final rendering: “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” This increased the statement’s religious overtone. Congress also removed Jefferson’s words condemning the practice of slavery in the colonies.
Yet the 1796 Treaty with Tripoli states: “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded by the Christian religion …” This was not an idle statement; the Founders meant it. The treaty was written during the presidency of George Washington, signed during the presidency of John Adams.
George Washington wrote in a 1792 letter to his friend, Irish politician Edward Newenham: “Religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause. Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought most to be deprecated. I was in hopes that the enlightened and liberal policy, which has marked the present age, would at least have reconciled Christians of every denomination so far that we should never again see the religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of society.”
Today’s increasingly combative religious disputes underline Washington’s fears. Fusing religious dogma and principles of self-governance endangers the peace as citizens with different beliefs and lifestyles are denied services, food, education and access to medical needs. Christian revisionists offer the Pilgrims as an example of the nation’s Christian founding. Yet the Pilgrims did not write our nation’s Constitution or Declaration of Independence. And the Pilgrims did not rebel against England. They fled religious persecution, only to practice it themselves here. The newly formed Baptists founded by Roger Williams of Massachusetts Bay Colony were in turn forced to flee such domination, making it as far as Rhode Island to practice their religion.
It was through the U.S. Constitution that our Founders did away with Christian persecution by stating: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Jefferson wrote in 1814: “Christianity neither is, nor ever was, a part of the Common Law.”
Anti-religious? Hardly. The Constitution provides for a heartening freedom of religious belief, not the requirement every citizen abide by a single belief, not denial of a citizen’s right to a peaceful existence if he or she does not subscribe to someone else’s religion. In this we have much to celebrate, a point George Washington Truett made in his own way back in 1920 in differentiating between tolerance and religious liberty: “Toleration is a concession, while liberty is a right. Toleration is a matter of expediency, while liberty is a matter of principle.”